The Chicago Defender, established in 1905 by Robert Abbot, is celebrated as one of the most influential Black newspapers. An article written by Diana Briggs and published in the Defender on August 16, 1941 features Wyatt Christopher, or W.C. Handy. Handy played a significant role in the popularization of the blues in the early 20th century. In the concise article, Briggs hails him as the “Father of the Blues,” and tells of his visit to the Good Shepherd Community Center.
W.C. Handy at the Good Shepherd Community Center
The article tells of Handy’s relationship with the blues and opinions on other related genres, such as Swing.Briggs openly presents Handy’s strong, uncompromising stance on the Swing style. Handy categorizes Swing as a “prostituted melody of the blues,” used for the purposes of economic piracy on the behalf of whites who profit off of it.Handy describes Swing in an extremely decisive manner, calling it an aborted form of blues.
When considering Handy’s career as a musician, composer, and bandleader, his almost graphic portrayal of swing seems entirely appropriate. Handy’s take on Swing relates to the greater, “message for his race” that Briggs notes throughout the article.The information surrounding Handy’s protective attitude towards blues in this article complements his career, which he spent, “making the blues a consciously composed art,” and bringing Black music into the mainstream of public culture.As a pioneering artist of the genre who believed that blues, “shall help [the] Negro in the fight for equal rights,” W.C. Handy’s unwavering take on both the importance of blues and the problems of Swing become unquestionable.
Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez met in New York in 1926, both young and only at the beginning of their long and influential careers.They became close friend, and although much of their relationship was long distance, they maintained a strong connection, “mentally and spiritually and musically.”The long lasting bond between the composers can be partially attested to their natural fondness for each other and additionally to the similarities between them.
Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez
Born a year apart, they both began musical study on piano before pursuing composition and harmony lessons in their teens.Additionally, both studied in Europe in the 1920s, where they were exposed to the latest innovations in art music.Over the course of their careers, the two seemed to develop a similar approach to modern composition in relationship to national identity. They both found the use of folk music as an effective way to create a distinctive “New World” sound.Many of Copland’s most beloved works, such as El Salón México and Short Symphony quote or incorporate the sounds of Mexico that he encountered on his many trips to visit Chávez. Similarly, Chávez’s works were celebrated by Mexican musicians for establishing a modernist, Mexican sound with use of Mexican folk music.
Copland admired Chávez’s non-European sound and “complete overthrow of nineteenth-century ideals.”Similarly, Chávez deemed Copland’s works as, “genuinely American,” and “the music of our time.”Their mutual respect for each other helped facilitate a cultural exchange of a new musical sound. Both Copland and Chávez introduced, programmed, and conducted the works of the other in their respective geographical locations.The quintessential American sound of the 20th century must be not only attributed to Aaron Copland, but Carlos Chávez and the close relationship between them.
When finding a text to research and write about in this post, the Tentative Course of Study for United States Indian Schools immediately caught my attention. This text, drafted by the Office of Indian Affairs, states that the Course of Study provided in the text is to be adopted by schools of the Indian school service.Children were required to attend these schools as a part of a treaty deal between a tribe and the United States government; both male and female children between the ages of six and sixteen were to endure the process of cultural assimilation and be instructed in the English language.
Article VI; Treaty with the Navajo Tribe at Fort Sumner
Within the text, an entire section is dedicated to the importance of, “training the senses,” and develop[ing] all the powers and functions of the human mind.”Music is named as the only subject that can synchronize the senses in a way that is “enjoyable to the individual and helpful to the community,” but this is quickly followed by a list of particular criteria that must be followed in the classroom when music is being taught.Unsurprisingly, these specifications uphold a legacy of cultural superiority. For example, in order to help students develop a sense of musical appreciation, they are only allowed to hear music deemed as good, which according to the text, seems to be limited to American patriotic songs and classical music composed by well-known European composers, such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.Additionally, the text presents individual aspects of music that can be used to further assimilate students into Western culture, like preferring a “good, smooth, sweet, light, pure tone,” over “raggedness” and “huskiness.”
These schools masqueraded as institutions that concerned themselves with the education and futures of Native American children. However, when considering how these schools use subjects like music to perpetuate cultural supremacy, the deeply problematic intention of these school to assimilate Native American children becomes blatantly obvious.
H. T. Burleigh composed beloved arrangements of Black spirituals for voice and piano, and as a result became one of the most well known Black composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.As an influential proponent of the development of the spiritual as an art genre, much of his beliefs and practices legitimized Black folk music within the classical music tradition.In addition to a prolific compositional career, he had an extensive career as a vocalist and performed internationally.
“Deep River” arrangement for voice and piano; by H.T. Burleigh
During Burleigh’s life, Black-face minstrelsy was the most prominent form of entertainment in popular culture.Minstrel shows are unquestionably racist and dehumanizing towards Black people, featuring a combination of expropriated folk music and dance performed by demeaning caricatures. In his edition of “Deep River,” Burleigh comments on the ability of spirituals, when performed well, to express hope, faith, and justice.Additionally, he acknowledges the prevalence of Blackface minstrelsy and warns against the use of the spiritual in a way that is an inappropriate imitation of vocal inflection and body language for the sake of racially extortive humor.
H.T. Burleigh, “Deep River” preface
Not only were spirituals a way to uplift the Black community and counter the damage being done through minstrelsy, but their ability to empower was recognized and used to advocate for other groups as well. An example of the use of the Black spiritual as a means for advocacy is the work of Paul Robeson, who spoke out on the behalf of the lower class and other marginalized groups. It seems as though the development of spirituals as art songs coincided with the practice of minstrelsy. However, minstrelsy expropriated black folk songs as a method of dehumanizing and profiting from the marginalization of Black people, while Burleigh’s work with Spirituals helped to legitimize Black folk music and empower other marginalized communities.
The Cleveland Gazette, a Black-owned newspaper founded in 1883,affirms Black composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor as being, “the real thing.”During his career, Coleridge-Taylor, like other composers of the time, found meaning and significance in African-American folk tunes.Coleridge-Taylor’s works were well-received during his lifetime, the most well-known being The Song of Hiawatha.Among many other works, he published a book of piano transcriptions of African-American folk tunes in 1905.
His success as a composer in Europe led him to America, where he performed various recitals featuring his works.Among the works he performed at one recital were four of the piano transcriptions found in his published collection, entitled, “I’m Troubled in Mind,” “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” and, “Many Thousands Gone.”
Twenty-four negro melodies transcribed for the piano by S. Coleridge-Taylor. Op. 59, table of contents
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, transcribed by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
When following the trajectory of his career, one cannot help but to draw parallels between Coleridge-Taylor and Antonin Dvorak. Like Dvorak, Coleridge-Taylor was a European composer who spent time in America and took an interest in preserving and using Black folk music as a source of musical inspiration.Coleridge-Taylor performed many successful recitals that received complementary reviews, naming him one of the very greatest.However, Dvorak’s influence was much greater and his legacy more well-known. These two composers are both equally as American as each other, but only Dvorak is credited with being the great American composer. The relationship between these two composers upholds a legacy of cultural supremacy that devalues Black artists and art until they are discovered, used, and legitimized by a White artist.
Browsing through the Library of Congress National Jukebox, I came across a piece that had a curious title. “Shanghai lullaby” was composed by Isham Jones and published under Columbia records in 1923.The piece is listed as a foxtrot, which is a dance genre with origins in ragtime and jazz.When listening to the piece, you can hear the stylistic characteristics of the foxtrot from the beginning, such as a rhythmic emphasis on beats one and three and common jazz instrumentation.When I considered the title, I had anticipated that the piece would be full of painfully obvious appropriation and misrepresentation. To my surprise, much of the piece sounds quite tame in terms of musical markers of otherness. However, the title brings attention to the use of pentatonic melodic figures throughout the piece and sections that feature the distinctive and unexpected tone of the oboe.
When considering cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, power dynamics cannot be ignored. “Shanghai lullaby” is a prime example of misrepresentation and appropriation of an other. Practices like this have a tendency to diminish a different group to nothing more than a few musical markers all for the sake of entertainment, interest, and novelty, which is a completely dehumanizing process. Unfortunately, using musical markers to profit off of marginalized groups was common practice during the period in which this piece was composed. A most notable example of this is Isham Jones and his Orchestra’s recording of “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” which bears a cover featuring racist caricatures of Black Americans.
Front page of sheet music edition of “Aunt Hagar’s Blues”
Unfortunately, this piece participates in and upholds a legacy of cultural supremacy and exploitation. If the title didn’t indicate the musical markers of an other, I suspect that not many listeners today would be able to pick up on the musical othering because so much of the piece is stylistically appropriate to the foxtrot and features a catchy, memorable melody. It really is too bad that the piece boasts a title that, nowadays, negates any enjoyment of the music itself and instead draws attention to a history of demeaning musical marginalization.
In his article, John Comfort Fillmore presents his analysis of a set of songs collected by Alice C. Fletcher. Aside from the conclusions that Fillmore draws from his harmonic analysis, he provides us with much more information that alerts us to his biases toward Native American Music. He recalls Fletcher’s request of him to analyze the songs to determine “the scale on which [they] were built,”but the existence of this article alone proves that this simple request made by another scholar quickly ballooned into something much more presumptuous and declarative than it deserved to be.
[Portrait of Mr. John Comfort Fillmore]. Photographs. Place: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Fillmore presents the scales of these songs in Western notation on the ignorant basis that, “the Indians have no musical notation, no theories of music whatsoever.”His deprecating comments continue when describing how he felt obligated to harmonize the versions of these songs since, “the harmonic sense of these peoples is underdeveloped.”Fillmore’s imposition of Western notation and harmony onto these songs is an excellent example of “colonial imposition,” which is a term used by Beverly Diamond in Music and modernity among First Peoples of North America to describe inadequate documentation of Native American music through the use of Western notation.
Fillmore’s intentions and biases are made clear at the end of the article, where his initial intentions of using the music of Native Americans to “test the naturalness of our own musical perceptions”lead to his far-fetched conclusion that Native American music contains a “noble religious feeling [akin to] the central idea of Christianity.”Contrary to popular ideas of the time, he does advocate for Native American music as being “worthy of comparison to some of the best [music] we possess ourselves,”but only after his unwelcome imposition of Western notation to create versions of Native American music that “the Indians couldn’t have produced unaided.”
Though much of ethnomusicology has changed over the course of its existence, some things remain the same, both positive and negative. Browner notes that the employment of fieldwork as the main method of ethnomusicological research has remained the same throughout history.Similarly, although the field has advanced greatly over time, the misrepresentation demonstrated through Fillmore’s article and research methods remains something to be aware of within ethnomusicology today.